North of Albany, along New York’s border with Vermont, Washington County formed in 1772, and grew quickly in its first decades.
If the census is to be trusted, there appears to have been a large migration of free African Americans into and then out of the county between 1800 and 1820.
Census records note that the county went from 80 slaves and 119 free blacks in 1800 to an astounding 315 slaves and 2815 free blacks in 1810, only to decline to a total of 404 blacks in 1820. This is certainly an anomaly and it might be explained as census error, except that it cannot be the result of something so simple as a transcription error, as original tabulated returns for Washington County at the township level record hundreds of heads of households (most white males) with typically one to five persons enumerated in the category “all other persons except Indians not taxed.”
If and why the free black population in Washington county suddenly boomed and then declined has not been explained. As far as I can tell, only one other person has investigated the mystery. This is Lloyd Stewart, author of an inconclusive book on the subject, who surmises that many of these free blacks came from the Hudson Valley, but he suggests that this source is insufficient for explaining the numbers, and many free blacks in Washington county came from outside of New York state. ( see: L. Lloyd Stewart, The Mysterious Black Migration, 1800-120: The Van Vrankens and other families of African Descent in Washington County, New York.(2013))
According to my calculations, the Hudson Valley’s slave population (everything from Westchester to Schenectady) declined from 12,270 to 8,147 between 1800 and 1810, but the total black population in the valley increased from 15,402 to 16,216 in the same period. Such a large African American migration from the upper Hudson Valley seems unlikely, since the total black population of Albany, Saratoga, Schenectady and Renssalaer Counties increased from 3,595 to 3,878 in that same period 1800-1810.
Stewarts’ case is limited, however, and I’m going to need to see more evidence that what Stewart presents, before I am convinced that he is right.
Possible explanations include confusion on the part of the census taker concerning what was meant by the category “all other persons except Indians not taxed”, or a large wave of Hudson Valley and other New England families (from say Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts) who migrated to the area along with their recently emancipated former slaves who yet remained members of their household for a few short years. Indeed, this seems to me to be the strongest explanation. It is not free blacks who migrated to Washington County on their own, but ostensible free blacks (officially manumitted former slaves) who still lived with their former enslavers.
There is some indication that the poor population was growing. (1806) A history of Hartford, Washington County, from 1896 says that in the year 1806: “Voted that the town poor be put up and sold to the lowest bidder on the following terms: That the bidder is to board and keep them in a human-like manner; and that if any clothing and doctoring are required, it be at the discretion and expense of the postmaster and justice of the peace.”
Edit: one reader has suggested that the count might be distorted for 1820 because in 1813 Warren County formed out of Washington County, NY. However, a quick look at the 1820 census data shows only 13 black people in Warren in 1820. The mystery remains unsolved.